A man who said he spent five years thinking he was HIV positive after he was misdiagnosed with the virus can sue a District clinic, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled last week.

Previously, Terry Hedgepeth‘s negligence suit was tossed out because it didn’t meet a “zone of physical danger” standard.

Hedgepeth—-whose riveting story we told last summer—-says he was given his erroneous diagnosis when he was tested at Whitman Walker Health. As a result, during the years that followed, he engaged in risky behavior by having sex with HIV positive women and doing drugs, he says. Hedgepeth also says he was in and out of mental hospitals because of the stress he went through in connection to his HIV status.

When he was retested at another clinic and learned he’d been fine the whole time, he filed a $20 million lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court naming Whitman-Walker and the doctor who’d administered his test, but the suit was derailed. As we previously reported:

Judge Robert E. Morin ruled, and a three-judge Court of Appeals panel also found, that Hedgepeth can’t sue Whitman-Walker, because he wasn’t physically harmed. The ruling hinged on a 1990 decision that patients can only sue for malpractice if they’re in a “zone of danger.” If Hedgepeth had taken HIV medication, the courts said, he could have sued—because then he could have proven harm.

The en banc appeals court, however, has decided that in special cases like Hedgepeth’s, the “zone of danger” rule isn’t the final word. “Because care for the body and the emotions are so interlinked, and patients often are dependent on their physicians’ exercise of due care, they therefore are susceptible to suffer emotionally as well as physically as a result of their physicians’ negligence,” the court opinion reads.

A spokesperson for Whitman-Walker hasn’t returned a call requesting comment yet. Hedgepeth’s lawyer, Jonathan Dailey, calls the ruling a “tremendous victory.” Hedgepeth, who has grown spiritual over the years, says he knew he’d prevail all along: “I had no doubts. I had great faith.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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